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Proficiency: Fear FactorProficiency: Fear Factor

Seven tips for self-confidence from an around-the-world journey

By Robert DeLaurentis  

On August 22, 2015, I returned to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field after completing the most epic flying journey of my life. In three months and eight days, I visited 23 countries, crossed 12 oceans and seas, and flew 26,000 nautical miles around the world in the Spirit of San Diego, my Piper Malibu Mirage. I flew the oceans solo—well, almost solo, as I would come to realize that fear was my constant companion.

October P&E
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

Fear came on board when I announced my solo circumnavigation adventure to family and friends, who were compelled to share their concerns about the enormous risk I was taking. They begged, pleaded, and some even cried as they asked me to cancel my plans. One friend shared how she had dreams that I would suffer a horrible and painful death. Their fears were unsettling to me, but my inner radar kept telling me that my trip was bringing up their fears, not mine.

Besides, I had my own fears to work past: I would be flying over vast expanses of inhospitable terrain that would require all my attention and focus. Each fear was like a rock in my flight bag that I carried with me everywhere I went. With survival gear, extra fuel, food, and water, I didn’t have room for any more payload—in my airplane or in my mind.

If fear tries to hijack your confidence and enjoyment while flying, here are seven powerful lessons I learned that will help you experience a more enjoyable flying experience.

1. Mitigate the risk
Break your fear down into the smallest pieces possible and mitigate them individually. My greatest flying fear during my circumnavigation was that I would need to ditch in the open ocean. I took an open ocean survival class, put together a floating survival bag, memorized emergency procedures, and installed airbags to improve my chances of surviving.

As a general aviation pilot, have you ever practiced getting out of your airplane quickly in case of a fire or water ditching (see “P&E: ‘Ditching, Ditching,’” September 2017 AOPA Pilot)? The good news is that 96 percent of people survive a water impact. The bad news is your airplane will sink quickly and you may have broken thumbs or ribs. You’ve got to be able to get your seat belts unbuckled or cut your way out. Having a knife accessible, that you can open with one hand, and an ax close by can be invaluable in case you need to cut your way out fast.

2. Experience makes a difference
Before I set out on my trip around the world, I had visited 33 countries in my airplane. I was constantly pushing my limits until flying to another country was just like going to another state or town. The more we do something, the easier it becomes.

For a general aviation pilot, doing smaller trips to less intimidating places and building up to a new challenge, such as international travel, is a great plan. A more varied experience will improve your skills as a pilot. Flying different types of terrain will teach you many things. Weather, takeoff and landing considerations, and even engine performance can vary significantly based on where you are flying. Why not mix it up?

3. Use available technology
I used every type of technology available to me to make my circumnavigation safer. That included a satellite phone, Garmin touchscreen GPS, satellite weather, terrain avoidance, active traffic, and synthetic vision. I also had a custom MT propeller and radar.

4. Have a support team you trust to guide you
Every step of the way, I had an amazing team to turn to. When I was 600 miles off the California coast on the final leg of my trip and the engine started overheating, I frantically satellite texted Mike Borden from High Performance Aircraft in El Cajon, who helped me quickly find a solution. Eddie Gould at General Aviation Support Egypt provided route guidance, permits, fuel information, lodging, weather, and mechanical support for the entire journey.

Rehearse emergency scenarios on a regular basis. Going after the things that scare you the most is where you will find your personal pay dirt.All pilots need a team. Don’t be afraid to call on mechanics, local pilot groups, and AOPA wherever you land. Their collective wisdom and support will guide you, keep you safe, and allow you to live your impossibly big dreams. Start building your team and engaging them the day you start dreaming of your trip. Every person counts.

5. Training, training, training
Fear may be tipping you off to the fact that you have some work to do on yourself. Proper training ultimately comes down to our ability to handle any situation we are presented. For me, the test came with the loss of engine oil and an overspeeding propeller at 14,000 feet over the Strait of Malacca, where I glided 19.6 nautical miles into Kuala Lumpur International 10 percent over max gross while spraying hot oil on the 1,500-degree exhaust.

As a general aviation pilot working hard to build your skills, confidence is key. Life will test you, and you are better off practicing with your flight instructor, who can keep you at the top of your game. Rehearse emergency depressurization, engine out, ditching, smoke in the cabin, and electrical failure on a regular basis. Going after the things that scare you the most is where you will find your personal pay dirt.

6. Silence your mind
Once I had engine problems in Asia the voices in my head started screaming at me before every flight—things like, “You can’t do this.” “You aren’t a good pilot.” “Your family is right. You are going to die.”

I used the words “Cancel, cancel” to quiet them and reminded myself of what I learned in my spiritual psychology training about acknowledging the fear, focusing on the times I broke through fear in the past and persevered, and how great I was going to feel when I had successfully returned. As author Don Miguel Ruiz says, “If you are going to tell yourself a story, you might as well make it a good one.”

7. Go deeper into the fear
What if fear is actually a friend with an important message from our bodies? What if we noticed where the fear was located in our bodies and asked it what it was trying to tell us?

On my trip, I noticed I held fear in my stomach. I learned a simple four-step process to dissolve the fear: 1. Acknowledge the feeling. Sometimes just putting my hand on my abdomen was all I needed to do to get the message. 2. Focus on what the fear is trying to tell me and note the action it wants me to take. 3. Let the feeling go with a deep breath. 4. Refocus and get back to the task at hand. Give this process a try the next time you start feeling fear, and watch how quickly the fear will dissipate.

The challenge is that fear keeps showing up—and it gets more intense—until we learn life’s intended lesson. Think of it like a parent trying to patiently teach a child something important; the parent doesn’t give up. Neither does life. Neither should we. Because, once we get the lesson, we can remove the biggest rock of all from our flight bag and enjoy what was always intended for us: the gift of flight.

Robert DeLaurentis is an author, speaker, real estate entrepreneur, pilot, philanthropist, and Navy Gulf War veteran. He is the author of Flying Thru Life and Zen Pilot (www.FlyingThruLife.com).

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